c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
I first dared to trespass over the chain across the road at Elkton many years ago. Creeping up the hillside, I hoped no passing car would see me or my bright red Chevy Nova, parked off the highway between Cripple Creek and Victor. Above me lay a handful of buildings in various states of decay. The empty cabins beckoned me with a whisper, asking me to remember the lives within their cozy depths. Elkton was inviting me in. With a last look around, I cautiously ducked into the first skeletal cabin I reached. Walking over the threshold was like entering a different world.
And so it went, for over a glorious decade. When other ghost towns seemed so far away, when imposing fences and signs created impassable barriers, Elkton was there for me. Sometimes alone, and sometimes with others, I enjoyed the old town as often as I could. No matter the season or time of day, the thought of Elkton inspired me to grab my coat, umbrella or lantern and explore to my heart’s content. As I came to know the town, I learned to belong there. As I came to know Elkton’s history, I yearned to have seen its lively past.
It was much later that I learned about William Shemwell, an amateur prospector and former blacksmith, who partnered with two other men to register what became the Elkton Mining and Milling Company – so named because Shemwell spotted some elk antlers near his dig. Next, Shemwell talked Colorado Springs grocers George and Sam Bernard, into grubstaking him in exchange for his $36.50 worth of groceries. Later, the Bernards bought Shemwell and partners out, hired the revered Ed De La Vergne to run the mine, and made millions. Long before that happened, however, the town of Elkton grew up near the mine to house local miners and their families.
Elkton’s post office opened in 1895, when the town was very fortunate to be served by all three railroads in the Cripple Creek District: the Florence & Cripple Creek, the Midland Terminal and later, the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railway. The Low Line Interurban System also constructed a bridge over the Midland Terminal tracks. A station house and telegraph office were built below the Elkton Mine. In 1896, the railroad built a quarter mile siding on the outskirts of town, just to pick up the ore.
Elkton’s population in 1896 was about 800. There was a barber, a hay and feed store, a laundry, one boardinghouse, a saloon, a cobbler, two hotels, two grocers, and a depot. Meanwhile, tiny houses sprouted all around the business district, and by 1898
Elkton looked about as neighborly as you could get. Neat rows of roads were built along the hillside, with modest miners cabins lined up beside one another. In time, the town would also absorb the nearby communities of Arequa, Beacon Hill and Eclipse.
As of 1900, there were nearly three dozen business houses, from Jennie Allen the laundress to Sam Adelman the shoemaker, from Frank Bernard the assayer to Naufett and Kelly’s saloon. Several merchants felt it was important to put Elkton’s name in front of their business name; the city directory showed shops like the book and stationary store, grocery stores, a drugstore and pharmacy, and even a laundry pointing out how proud the owners were to be a part of the town’s business district. There was also a school and at least five rooming houses to house bachelor miners and the occasional visitor.
Over the next three years, Elkton grew to its peak population of 3,000 people in 1905. Yet the town retained its sense of community, even during the tumultuous labor strikes during 1903 and 1904. Here, neighbors talked freely about the local happenings, traded recipes and tall tales, gossiped about each other, speculated about how well the Elkton Mine was doing, and chatted amiably with each other over the back fence or while walking past the neat rows of little houses. Even when Elkton began shrinking as mining in the Cripple Creek District waned, those die-hards who remained in town went on about their daily business, chins up.
Like some of the other 25-or-so towns and cities in the District, Elkton received a brief reprieve in 1914 when mining engineer Dick Roelofs discovered a gigantic vug in the Cresson Mine about a mile above town. With the discovery, miners from all over the district were summoned to work the Cresson Vug. Roelofs built an overhead tram from the Cresson which extended down through Elkton and ended at Eclipse. Two years after that, the Elkton Mine topped out at $16,200,000 in gold production.
The lifeline of the town got smaller and smaller. By 1919 only a few businesses were left. The school closed down around 1920, and the post office closed six years later. That is when Elkton began its life as a tiny shadow of its former self. Some homes were abandoned, while others remained occupied off and on. Those who lived there treasured Elkton as an authentic, semi-ghost town from the long ago past whose charm included weathering buildings which somehow remained steadfast in the face of harsh, windy winters and pouring summer rains. As late as 1982, a few homes were still occupied. By the time I discovered the town, however, the buildings were empty and only some remnants of those who lived there remained.
During those times I visited, I sometimes used history books as a guide. It was not hard back then to stand in the streets and compare old images of Elkton to the contemporary scene. The history left behind challenged my imagination to picture how Elkton must have been. Wandering from building to building, I saw plenty of signs of a life long before mine. One house was strewn with vintage lingerie and a dressing table whose drawers still contained stationary, cold cream and bobby pins. Another home offered shelves of spices, canned goods and shoe polish. Yet another still had pictures hanging on the walls. In the last twenty years, some woman had left her checkbook on a closet shelf. Later, I saw a mining certificate bearing her name, up for sale at a shop in Cripple Creek. A wonderful old pair of catty sunglasses rested on the sink at that house, as if someone had just come in with groceries and laid them down.
Even the walls of some houses told a story, since many of them were covered with old newspapers for added insulation. Sometimes there was no newspaper, only loose strips of wallpaper reaching out like long wispy fingers on the breeze. I looked under porches and poked around root cellars. My imagination furnished the empty front parlors and pondered over kitchens. In the house with the spices, a table was still set with a tablecloth and centerpiece.
Often I wished for the means to restore the old piano still reposing dismally inside what was formerly a prim and comfortable home. It was a cheap upright, painted white by some well-meaning housewife and left behind when the housewife departed. In its later life, the piano housed bird nests and rodent dens. Few of its ivory keys gave forth an audible note. My favorite memory about the house with the piano is the day a friend and I were caught in a rainstorm there.
Waiting out the storm gave us time to look closely at the scattered remnants of someone’s past. Magazines and other paper lazed in piles around the house. Pieces of wedding paper and bows also lay about, as if the bride in all her glee had run through the house opening her gifts in a frenzy and strewing paper as she went. Mixed with the bows were letters telling of the marriage—and of an accident following the ceremony which seriously injured the groom. What became of the couple is anyone’s guess, and I suppose I’d rather keep it that way. For imagination’s sake.
Outside of the houses were more pieces of history – old bottles, bits of broken china, chunks of old cookstoves, pieces of a chair. Old clotheslines where clothes once hung, and flower gardens once lovingly tended. Wind, people, and perhaps even animals had scattered other items about. It was not unusual to find a saucepan in the middle of the road, or someone’s shoe, or a discarded license plate. A garage with one door hanging precariously on one hinge and swinging in the breeze revealed an old armoire that was chock full of old magazines. I tell you, visiting Elkton was one of my very favorite things to do. Being there somehow made me feel at home, and I slowly but surely fell in love with that old ghost town.
Then came 1994.
Talk had long been coming about the Cripple Creek & Victor Mine wanting to take out Elkton. The company got their wish, and Elkton, along with the entire mountain upon which it perched, was bulldozed in the frantic search for more gold. Prior to the destruction an archaeological dig was conducted at the town, but any remaining artifacts were sent to an out-of-state university and local museums received nothing. It made me glad that I had picked and saved several items from Elkton over the years. Most of them made their way to the Cripple Creek District Museum, so others could enjoy them and Elkton’s history. But I saved the catty sunglasses for myself.
Still, the destruction of Elkton made me sad. I remembered the bird nests I spotted on porches. During the years that Elkton was left to the elements, plenty of other wildlife made the town their home as well. Then there was the matter of the way the faded yellow paint under the eave of one house shone as the sun was setting on it. And the broken china doll head I forgot to pick up. And the story of the old couple who lived there in the 50’s and proclaimed themselves Mr. and Mrs. Mayor of Elkton. And the memories of people who managed to survive quite nicely in primitive cabins with few modern amenities. All of that was destroyed when Elkton fell to the bulldozer.
There’s a story about a little boy walking down the beach among hundred of starfish that have washed up. The child begins picking them up, one by one, and tossing them back into the ocean. A man sees this and asks the boy, “What are you doing? You can’t save them all, you know.” The boy picks another starfish up, tosses it into the water, and replies, “Well, I just saved that one.” Elkton is my lost starfish, the one I couldn’t save. I know I’m not the only one to feel this way. That is why groups of us historians advocate, sometimes fiercely, to save history before it’s gone. So people will remember how important these places were, and how they got us to where we are now.
You can read more about the ghost towns of the Cripple Creek District and Teller County in Jan’s book, Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County.
Image c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins